Mixed Messages

Travis Jeppesen on the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam

Jim Chuchu, We Need Prayers: This One Went to Market?, 2017, DCP, color, sound, 5 minutes.

“HAVE YOU HEARD OF ‘AFROFUTURISM’?” responds the young artist, when her photographer asks why she’s hanging that ridiculous arrangement of electrical sockets over her painted face. “It’s this thing . . . It’s really big right now . . . and white people really like it for some reason.”

With the international premiere of the brief, bold, and hilarious art-world satire This One Went to Market?, 2018, from Nairobi-based filmmaker Jim Chuchu’s brilliant new Web series We Need Prayers (2018–), produced together with the twelve-member strong Nest Collective, the Forty-Seventh International Film Festival Rotterdam was launched with the promise that an uncompromising interrogation of all the present’s volatilities would be on offer. With a startlingly dense program of films, installations, and live events featuring a range of international auteurs, it was a struggle to determine where to begin after the opening film. One thing Rotterdam never lacks is ambition. As the first event of every calendar year for cineastes the world over, it is a vital tone-setter not only for assessing the zeitgeist but for determining what is to come next: the present continuous. Many overlapping themes were proffered, but ultimately, filmmaking with a social conscience ruled the day.

Thankfully, such concerns often necessarily go hand in hand with formal innovation. The first film by artist Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes (2017), was crafted wholly from surveillance-camera footage uploaded to the public domain of the Web. In collaboration with screenwriter Zhang Hanyi and poet Zhai Yongming, Xu created a would-be love story between two drifters striving to find one another—and themselves—in the chaos of contemporary China: “In this society,” states the female protagonist on her way to the plastic surgery clinic, “I’ve learned you either have to change your appearance or change your mind.”

Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, DCP, color and black-and-white, sound, 81 minutes.

No society, in its thinking and appearance, has changed as much as China in the past thirty years, and one of the most compelling trackers of those changes—and, in particular, those often left behind because of them—has been the documentarian Wang Bing. His latest film, Mrs. Fang (2017), presents the final days and nights of its titular heroine, a poor villager afflicted with Alzheimer’s, as her loved ones stand helplessly by. A moving and affecting portrayal of a rural community in the face of loss, Mrs. Fang is Wang’s best film since 2013’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part.

China’s heartland is also the setting for Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch (2018), which took the festival’s top prize, the Hivos Tiger Award. In this scrappy but confoundingly original absurdist drama, neighbors decide that down-on-her-luck Erhao (played by Tian Tian) is endowed with supernatural powers after her involvement in a bizarre series of coincidences. After refuting their claims, she soon comes to learn that her very survival and well-being depend on playing this assigned role. Along the way, she is able to help not only herself but also those around her, ultimately emerging as an unlikely feminist heroine.

Cai Chengjie, The Widowed Witch, 2018, DCP, color and black-and-white, sound, 120 minutes.

Elsewhere, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) offers an unforgettable dissection of that issue that so many Americans are affected by and so few understand: class. Following his 2015 film Tangerine, which explores a day in the life of two transgender prostitutes on LA’s mean streets, Baker’s portrayal of the long-term inhabitants of the motels in the shadow of Orlando’s Disneyworld is a further distinction in his trajectory of looking at America’s disenfranchised and disempowered.

Another America—distanced both geographically and historically—is conjured in Lucrecia Martel’s masterful Zama (2017), set in the Spanish colonial bureaucracy of eighteenth-century Argentina, in which a corregidor, awaiting a transfer out of the isolated backwater where he is stationed, finally sets out on a doomed mission to slay a villain who may not even exist. The long-awaited film is notable in many ways for the director: It is her first digital film, her first adaptation (from the 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto), and her first film with a historical setting. In one of the festival’s high points, Martel offered a sold-out master class in which she introduced the thought and practice behind one of the most sophisticated and nuanced visions in contemporary cinema.

“To take ownership of time is a political decision,” she asserted while elucidating the complex relationship between cause and consequence—the underlying dynamic behind all of Martel’s films. Like all truly great artists, she constantly grapples with her own complicity within the larger sociocultural context in which she operates. For example, she pointed out cinema’s hegemonic role in upholding white supremacy when noting that 80 percent of all films are made by people like her: the white middle- to upper-middle class.

Through five features and three shorts, the young filmmaker Kim Kyung-Mook has penetrated the lives of queers, North Korean defectors, prostitutes, deviants, and disenfranchised youth, among other rejects of South Korean society. Delivering this year’s Freedom Lecture, which included a screening of his first autobiographical short, Me and Doll-Playing (2004), Kim demonstrated that the most profound characteristic of genius is a capacity for empathy, one that is sadly lacking in the political landscape of the world we inhabit today.

Lucrecia Martel, Zama, 2017, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

The Forty-Seventh International Film Festival Rotterdam ran from January 24 through February 4, 2018.